Israel needs to fight for true freedom of religion - opinion

What Idit Silman, et al., describe as a Jewish identity is the identity of a small minority in the state of Israel and an even smaller minority among world Jewry.

 MK IDIT SILMAN, chair of the Knesset Health Committee, sits alongside Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz at a committee meeting in February. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK IDIT SILMAN, chair of the Knesset Health Committee, sits alongside Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz at a committee meeting in February.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Once again, an Israeli government may be toppled over its religion and state battles. MK Idit Silman’s resignation may bring elections closer and it will hopefully result in a wide awakening to the critical importance of the struggle that for too long has been pushed under the rug. The shaping of the future of the state of Israel will require that both the Israeli public and diaspora Jewry join hands to bring about the necessary resolution.

Silman justified her resignation writing that she “cannot lend her hand to harming the Jewish identity of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.” She labels the Supreme Court ruling regarding the question of hametz as crossing a red line. We disagree with her both as to the Jewish identity of the state of Israel and that of the Jewish people. The ruling mandated that maintaining kashrut in hospitals can co-exist alongside protecting the rights of secular and non-Jewish patients and hospital workers who have hametz in their private possession and consume it.

Silman, the Chief Rabbinate, the ultra-Orthodox politicians and their partners in other parties, such as Miri Regev [Who hastened to describe the majority of the public in Israel as Hellenists (assimilationist Jews who adopted Greek culture during the Second Temple period) are wrong and misleading when they describe such co-existence as impossible in terms of halacha. It’s hard to know if they believe what they say or whether it is merely a deliberately inflammatory manipulation intended to scare the state authorities and the courts.

Regarding halacha, the Torah commands observant Jews: “(hametz) shall neither be seen nor found.” This commandment forbids them to have hametz of their own during Passover, rather than being near the hametz of others, even if it is in front of them. The halachic formula defines and restricts this prohibition: “You may not see your own [hametz], but you [may] see [hametz] belonging to others.” This is the reason why observant Jews can be found in hospitals during Passover all over the world, even though the patients around them eat hametz unhindered.

This is the basis for the widespread reality that supermarket shelves on Passover are laden with hametz, hidden behind brown paper. This is the basis of the halachic fiction of sale of hametz to an Arab before Passover. There are countless, similar examples.

Hametz is covered at a store in Israel  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Hametz is covered at a store in Israel (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Indeed, since its establishment, there has been an existential struggle over the core identity of the state of Israel. It was formulated in constitutional legislation in 1992: “The values ​​of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” A huge majority of the public, unlike Silman, sees these values ​​as necessitating the protection of religious freedom and equality, just as the Declaration of Independence promises. Therefore, this majority opposes laws and policies that violate these values.

But, politicians in the service of religion, such as Silman and the ultra-Orthodox parties, continue to attempt to coerce the state of Israel to get into line with their religious beliefs. They expect the majority in Israel and the diaspora, which doesn’t share their beliefs, to respect their feelings, while they, on the other hand, trample on the liberty and dignity of this majority.

What Silman, et al., describe as a Jewish identity is the identity of a small minority in the state of Israel and an even smaller minority among world Jewry. She describes this as the common good, which, in this context, is nothing but a cynical slogan used by proponents of religious coercion, intended to give it a false aura of consensus. In the name of this misguided notion, and against the will of two-thirds of Israel’s adult Jewish public, for example, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right to marry and millions more are unable to marry in a manner consistent with their non-Orthodox worldviews. 

In the name of this distorted approach, they dictate legislation that denies equal and full recognition of the Jewish status of Jews who converted through the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as Modern Orthodox converts. In this spirit, another Yamina leader, Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana, defined Israel in a recent interview, during his visit to the United States as follows: “The state of Israel, in principle, is an Orthodox state. At the same time, Israel is a place that respects the rights of all minority groups.”

Israel is not and must not be an Orthodox state and the reference to the secular majority and to the Reform and Conservative movements as minority groups is degrading. Also, it demonstrates a refusal to internalize the promise of the Declaration of Independence and a lack of understanding of Jewish peoplehood as based on accepting that unity cannot be achieved by enforcing uniformity. Minister Kahana’s support for refusing to implement the Kotel agreement with the Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative Movements is just another example of a misguided approach to Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

And back to the current issue raised by Silman: Contrary to her assertion, the truth is that the majority of Israel’s public supports the Supreme Court’s ruling on the issue of hametz, as demonstrated by a number of surveys on the matter. But no less important – recognition of the right of secular Jews and non-Jews to consume hametz does not prevent those who keep kosher from fully observing halacha.

Silman seeks to perpetuate religious coercion and to undermine individual liberties, and civil rights. This, instead of promoting pluralistic and tolerant Judaism, which most of the public supports. According to her, if freedom of religion and equality become a reality in Israel, “within a year or two we have no state.” So sad and so disappointing.

Freedom of religion and conscience is a fundamental value in shaping the future of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, and support for it crosses political boundaries. It’s high time for the majority in Israel and throughout the diaspora to make their voices heard with no less determination than that of Silman and the minority that she speaks for. The real majority should emerge from its silence and express its convictions through tangible actions of diaspora Jewish organizations in relation to the state of Israel, as well as through the effective voting of Israelis in the next elections, which are probably not far away.

The writer heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.